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When most people think of “Mexican food” they think of fajitas, nachos and a lost shaker of salt. But savvy travelers know that Mexico is home to multiple cuisines and that Tex-Mex is actually not one of them. To those looking to expand their palates, let me introduce you to Oaxaca.
The Five Ws of Oaxaca
Oaxaca was home to the Zapotec culture, which left behind traces of itself in ruins that rival any in Central America. The largest of these is Monte Albán. Dating back to 6th century BCE, it was among the largest cities in Mesoamerica. The good news for tourists is the ruins, while easy to visit in a day, are not nearly as crowded as other Mexican sites. The better news is that the indigenous culture’s vestiges can be tasted in ways from mezcal to seven types of mole.
Oaxaca (Wa-Hawk-Ah) is a city of 300,000 residents that is well known to Mexicans and foodies around the globe for being a culinary standout in a country of culinary standouts. Because it’s not on a beach, it’s not as well known to Americans who tend to flock to Mexico’s shore resorts.
Oaxaca city is in the mountainous region in the southern center of Mexico and is a part of the state of Oaxaca, which also contains Puerto Escondido, an oasis for both surfers and sea turtles. That said, there’s a six hour drive between the two so don’t expect to cover both Oaxaca and the beach in a weekend.
There’s not a bad time to visit Oaxaca, as the mountainous climate helps regulate the weather. I visited in July and found “rainy season” to consist of a shower or storm lasting less than an hour each evening. The upside to that remarkably short downside was highs in the low 80s. That said, Oaxaca is famous for its Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) celebration. If you’ve ever wanted to visit the set of the movie Coco, Oaxaca in October or early November would be a great place to start.
Here’s where things get really fun. Read on.
Mole and Mezcal
If you’re new here, mole is a complex sauce (I hesitate to use the word sauce but it’s the closest I can get) made from chiles, spices, chocolate and a dash of magic. Oaxaca is widely known for having the best mole in the world (unless you ask someone from Puebla). However, Puebla has one variety of amazing mole and Oaxaca has seven.
I won’t take you through each one, but highly recommend a sampler plate. They vary in texture and taste ranging from apple butter-y (mole negro) to sweetly spicy (mole amarillo) to spring meadow (mole verde). My descriptions don’t do them justice, so I encourage you to see for yourself. Of course they’re best as a topping or accompaniment to tortillas, a meat or vegetable dish but I won’t judge if you just spoon it like soup. I especially like the mole negro on roast pork, but it’s hard to go wrong.
The signature drink in Oaxaca, unlike most of Mexico, is mezcal. While in the same family as tequila, mezcal has a decidedly different flavor. The easiest way to think of it is to consider tequila as scotch or Irish whiskey, then consider mezcal as bourbon. Mezcal shares that “smoky” flavor with its American cousin. If you like bourbon, you’ll probably warm up to mezcal. If you think bourbon’s wooden overtones are overwhelming, you may find that mezcal has tree vibes as well. As with most alcohol, the higher you go on the price scale, the smoother you’ll find the taste.
High and Low
One thing that stands out about Oaxaca is how easy fine dining is on the wallet. Meals that could have easily topped $100 in other cities usually came in at one quarter of that or less. You can even dine well on a couple of bucks a meal at the Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Just pick a stall and have a seat. For dessert try a tuna popsicle. Tuna, in this case means, prickly pear (cactus fruit) in Spanish, not the fish.
Or do what I did a couple of days and buy a tamale (usually sweet corn or pineapple) or Tlayuda (kind of like a quesadilla, but not) from an elderly lady selling them from a laundry basket. Rule of thumb: The older the woman, the better the food.
Every article you’ll read about Oaxaca will mention Los Danzantes, but it’s for good reason. I sampled a number of the most pricey restaurants in the city and Los Danzantes was worth every penny of my $35 lunch. My tomahawk style bone-in pork chop with mole manchamantel was not only a spectacle on its own, it was served with a melange of mushrooms including some that were bright orange. I did not know orange mushrooms were a thing, but they were amazing. The outdoor seating is under a cleverly designed patio, which drains into a pond creating a waterfall effect when it rains.
As much as I would have liked to, I suggest not having mole at every meal. It’s definitely possible to get a dish of mole with your eggs, but for breakfast you might do better with a coffee or hot chocolate—or better yet, a frozen mocha. That was my go-to drink at Café Brújula, which serves their version of frappes in glasses which you can enjoy in a serene and lush courtyard for $3. Take that, Starbucks.
Because this is a travel rewards vertical, I’d be remiss not to tell you how to use your points to save a buck or two. The good news is that it’s easy to use airline miles to Oaxaca. I found availability on all three major alliances and consistent pricing around 30,000 to 35,000 miles for round trip in coach and around 60,000 in business, with occasional sales making that go lower.
That said, of the three airline alliances I would highly recommend using SkyTeam—Delta partners with Aeromexico which has many flights throughout the day to Oaxaca from Mexico City. United and American have direct flights from the U.S., but they tend to be from Texas and may go only once or twice per day. Flying via Mexico City gives you many more options if things go south.
The bad news about Oaxaca is that points hotel options are extremely limited. Limited as in there’s one option: a Holiday Inn Express. While it’s reasonably priced and gets good reviews, it seems a shame to visit such a cultural and colorful city and base in a chain hotel. There are many lovely options you can book via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, but I’d highly recommend going with a vacation rental. For the same price as a hotel you can go a bit native and have plenty of room to stretch out.
Even though I traveled solo, I ended up booking an amazing 1,700 square foot house with floor to ceiling windows and a large terrace overlooking the city. At less than $100 per night off-season, it was champagne lodging on a beer budget. I ended up cashing out some Ultimate Rewards points using Pay Yourself Back to subsidize the cost.
While I’m talking about logistics, I should mention that the Covid-19 measures in Oaxaca were solid from my point of view. Masks were pretty much universal indoors, but most things were open. The only real miss was that the main archeological museum was closed. Mexico rates states by a traffic light system and at the time of my visit Oaxaca was in the green zone. Of course things are subject to change so keep an eye out.
I’ve been banging the chase the experience drum pretty hard, and Oaxaca is exhibit A as to why. My experience checklist when planning this trip was a temperate climate, a historic vibe, lush greenery, amazing food and few crowds. Oaxaca checked every box and then some. I can’t wait to return and in the meantime have set myself to learning how to make a mole for each day of the week.